An Optimist’s Worries

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The American Idea
Scholars, novelists, politicians, artists, and others look ahead to the future of the American idea.

I may be an incurable optimist, but at the age of 84—having lived through the Great Depression, Stalin, Hitler, World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War—I think today’s world is not in bad shape. The American idea is alive and well, as attested to by the widespread envy it arouses.

Nevertheless, there are some features of the contemporary United States that trouble me. One is the breakdown of social cohesion. The unprecedented prosperity we enjoy has liberated the individual from economic dependence on the family and the community, resulting in an exorbitant individualism. Our society is no longer held together by shared values—short of theft, rape, and murder, anything goes. A high proportion of our children are born outside the family, and hence deprived of its spiritual and moral guidance. Our young do not “belong,” except casually and fleetingly, and are cast adrift, ultimately motivated by nothing more substantial than self-gratification.

Another of my concerns is the breakdown of political consensus. The country seems hopelessly divided between conservatives and liberals, the two groups having little in common save mutual dislike. I think in this respect the liberals bear greater responsibility than their rivals, for while the conservatives scorn the liberals, the liberals reciprocate with hatred. Unless this breach is healed, the country will not be able to govern itself effectively.

Last but not least, I am worried about our educational system, which teaches less and less—and at great expense. Our young do not read. They are ignorant of the history of their country and that of the world at large. Our universities, led by people who see their function to be social improvement rather than learning, are not doing their job.

Despite these problems, on the whole I see a society that remains fundamentally true to its Founders’ ideals and that, given its freedom and affluence, should be able to cope with such challenges as it is likely to confront in the future.

Richard Pipes is the Baird Professor of History, Emeritus, at Harvard.
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